Darren Bazeley turned 50 earlier this month.

From the time he was first on schoolboy terms with Watford at the age of 13, to, just last month, coaching New Zealand to the Under-20’s Oceania Championships to book a place in next year’s World Cup, he feels both proud and fortunate to have spent the vast majority of that half a century living his life in the world of football.

And more recently, extensively travelling that world as well.

Living in Auckland where he and his family have been resident since 2005 and now have citizenship as bona fide ‘Kiwis’, it all feels far cry from the three years he spent with Wolves at the turn of the Millennium.

Ultimately, like all those Wolves teams of the 1990s and early 2000s, they couldn’t quite achieve the prized but elusive ambition of promotion to the Premier League.

But it certainly wasn’t for the want of trying or any lack of effort, with injuries, dubious refereeing decisions and just plain old circumstances often playing their part in denying Wolves admission to the Promised Land.

For Bazeley, even though his Molineux stay too was affected by injury, he remembers his time in the Midlands – where he remained with Walsall after leaving Wolves – with much affection, all the way from the other side of the globe.

“I loved it at Wolves,” he enthuses.  

“We had a young family at the time, and moved to Codsall where we really enjoyed it, and met so many great people while I was there.

“I will always remember Rachael Heyhoe Flint looking after us and making sure we settled in.

“I gelled straightaway when I was at Wolves, and made lifelong friends in the dressing room who I still speak to today, as well as several fans who I am still in touch with.

“Maybe it didn’t quite work out on the pitch, but I was proud to have played for Wolves and will always remember the club with a great deal of affection.”

And the links with Wolves, both before and after Bazeley’s time at Molineux, have never looked like being able to leave him.

Colin Lee, Kenny Jackett, Graham Taylor, Neil Emblen, Carl Robinson, Ludo Pollet, Kenny Miller, Kevin Muscat, Steve Corica, Ricki Herbert, Paul Simpson, Jack Price – all of them have at some point played a part or come into contact with the Darren Bazeley story outside of his spell with Wolves.

And that story is one which began for the Northampton-born defender/midfielder with Watford where, having progressed through to the YTS ranks, Lee was his first coach for the youth team.

When Lee was promoted to the role of first team manager, soon afterwards handing Bazeley his senior debut at the age of 17, it was Jackett who came in as youth team coach, he too later becoming first team manager and then assistant to Taylor.

Over a nine-year period, Bazeley made 283 appearances for the Hornets at either right back or right midfield, scoring 27 goals, including a hat trick at Southend, and landing a solitary England under-21 cap in the same team as the likes of Ugo Ehiogu, Ray Parlour and Andy Cole against Hungary in 1992.

Although Watford were relegated to the third tier during his stay, Taylor inspired a traditional Hornets upward surge through the divisions by winning the League One equivalent and then the Championship play-offs, coming through the semi-final on penalties against Birmingham before defeating Bolton 2-0 at Wembley.

Premier League football was now on the table, but, prior to that, a contract wasn’t, and so, as a free agent, Bazeley very quickly attracted the attention of his former manager Lee, preparing for his first full season at the helm at Wolves.

“I’d been at Watford for almost ten years, and I think a lot of players will tell you, when you have been at a club that long, you often see players come in and perhaps get treated a little bit better,” he explains.

“I loved my time there, and particularly that final season, where we won seven of the last eight league games to reach the play-offs and sealed promotion with the win at Wembley.

“But at the same time, I didn’t want to go through my career without a new challenge, and I think sometimes as a footballer you need to experience the whole transfer situation and join a new club and meet new people.

“I actually had some contract talks with Graham around Christmas time of that last year, and he said we would leave it all until the end of the season.

“If I’m honest, I was a little bit disappointed in that at the time as I felt I was playing well, I was in the first team, and there is always that worry over an injury if your contract is running down.

“I know there was some anger amongst fans when I eventually left – talking about loyalty and so on – but the club allowed my deal to run down and I would probably have signed something if it had been on the table at Christmas.

“And when we got to the end of the season there was still a good chance I was going to stay at Watford.

“I had played almost every game, we’d just got promoted, and I got on very well with Graham.

“As I was a free agent Wolves had got in touch and it was probably out of courtesy to Colin from our time together before that I travelled up to meet him.

“From there I remember just arriving and seeing the stadium, walking through reception and meeting everyone and it just feeling right.

“Talking to Colin he was so excited about the potential of the club and the future and speaking to people I knew within football they were telling me that Wolves was a massive football club, which I think has been proved in recent years.

“It all went backwards and forwards a little bit but, in the end, I decided to join, and make a fresh start.

“Sometimes people ask me if I regret it given that Watford were in the Premier League and Wolves never quite made it when I was there, but I have no regrets, I really enjoyed my time at Molineux.

“I was joining Wolves and looking at the squad thinking we had a great chance of getting promoted and would never have known at that stage that staying at Watford was going to be my only chance of playing in the Premier League.

“And winning a play-off final at Wembley was probably the perfect way to round off nine enjoyable years!”

Bazeley had played almost all of Watford’s play-off winning season as a right back, and that prompted further eyebrows at his decision to move given Wolves had Muscat as a consistent performer and regular captain occupying that position.

But Lee had sold a specific vision to Bazeley, of him operating on the right wing and fellow new arrival Andy Sinton on the left, supplying the ammunition for a strike pairing of Steve Bull and Robbie Keane.

Best laid plans however, because the seemingly endless misfortune of Wolves during that era, meant that barely a month into the season both of those strikers were no more.

Bull had been forced to retire due to injury during the pre-season tour of Sweden, and Keane was sold for a sizeable fee to Coventry, prompting a very swift changing of the guard at the top end of the pitch.

Ade Akinbiyi, for a club record £3.5million, Michael Branch and George Ndah were signed to join target man Haavard Flo, and there was still plenty of footballing quality in the team from the likes of Emblen, Osborn, Robinson and Corica.

And Bazeley was to form a hugely impressive alliance down the right-hand side with that man Muscat.

“On the first day I joined I met up with Muzzy and we got on really well,” he explains.

“Everyone who knows Muzzy knows that if he’s your team-mate he’s the best person to have around but if he’s on the opposition, maybe not so good.

“He certainly looked after his team-mates and he was a good leader who has gone into management and done really well.

“Playing in front of him, I think he used to scare people and give me the ball but he was also a really good player and we linked up well.”

It was certainly a squad capable of winning promotion, and yet, as so often at Molineux, it wasn’t meant to be.

Defeats at Bolton thanks in part to dubious refereeing decisions were regular gold and black bedfellows in those days and a 2-1 loss in the penultimate game of the season, having been a goal up at half time, effectively spelled a controversial end to Wolves’ play-off chances whilst opening the door for the alternative Wanderers.

“That was a big blow, because with the team we had I’d have fancied us to go on and win the play-offs,” says Bazeley, reflecting on what was a second successive seventh-place finish.

He had played every single one of the 51 league and cup fixtures in that 1999/2000 campaign, and was an ever-present again the following season until injury struck away at Sheffield Wednesday just before Christmas.

Little did Bazeley know, but that setback at Hillsborough would prompt a sad end to his Wolves career.

He underwent two separate knee operations, neither of which worked, and it was only when going under the knife under a different surgeon that the problem was ultimately solved.

That wasn’t however without a cost, 18 months of football in total, and by the time Bazeley was back fit again in the final stretch of the ill-fated 2001/02 season, Dave Jones was set on his squad and there was no room for any gatecrashers.

“That’s the story of my Wolves career to be honest,” Bazeley explains.

“I came in, played 80 games in a row, got injured at Sheffield Wednesday, and never played for the club again.

“I had been really proud of being an ever-present in my first season and was hoping for more of the same but what happened with my injury was really disappointing, especially with the operations which didn’t work.

“By the time I got back Dave Jones had brought in his own players which happens in football and I had been injured for so long where I had been no use to him.”

A disappointing ‘second half’ to his three-year Wolves tenure still doesn’t cloud the enjoyment Bazeley experienced during his time at Molineux.

There were so many team-mates who also had young children of similar ages such as Emblen, Osborn and Muscat, and a great ‘family environment’ running throughout the club.

Little wonder then that, after Wolves, Bazeley spent three more happy years back working for Lee at Walsall, alongside – again – Emblen, Osborn, Corica, Robinson, Keith Andrews and Ludo Pollet.

They had got the band back together!

“After all the injury problems I linked up with Colin again and played 100 games in three seasons – my knee was fine,” Bazeley reflects.

“We stayed in the Championship in the first season which was a great achievement although sadly got relegated in the next one.

“As well as the guys I had played with at Wolves, I also met Danny Hay at Walsall, who was also the New Zealand captain – he joined on the same day as me from Leeds, and that was to play a big part in the direction of my later career.”

More on that later, but Bazeley’s days at Molineux can’t be reviewed without his greatest goal, on an incident-packed day which shook the stadium to its very foundations.

The recent visit of Nottingham Forest to Molineux was dramatic enough with Jose Sa’s late penalty save, but that has nothing on the day the two clubs locked horns back in February, 2000.

Striker Akinbiyi and Forest defender Tony Vaughan were sent off following a clash early on, and David Prutton followed them on the stroke of half time by which point Pollet, Bazeley with a screamer and Branch had put Wolves 3-0 up.

Only problem was, Branch’s goal came after he kept the ball in play when everyone else had stopped as keeper Dave Beasant had kicked for touch to allow for treatment to the injured Naylor. Cue complete and utter pandemonium.

“That was probably the best goal of my career, and yet because of all the trouble the game nearly got cancelled,” Bazeley recalls.

“It took an eternity to be able to get Ade off the pitch, and then Dave Beasant was chasing Branchy around the pitch before a big fight in the tunnel at half time.

“That was the only game I can ever recall the Police coming into the dressing room at half time and saying if we didn’t all settle down in the second half, the whole thing would be called off.

“I was like, ‘please don’t, I’ve just scored one of the best goals I will ever score!’”

That was perhaps one of the more eventful of Bazeley’s 463 outings on British soil – all played out with Watford, Wolves and Walsall – but there were still more appearances to come after he embarked on his new chapter Down Under.

Saddlers’ team-mate Danny Hay had returned home to New Zealand for the start of the new Australian A-League, joining New Zealand Knights, and Bazeley opted to follow suit.

“Yes, the other side of the world was obviously a very long way to go, but it was really exciting and the opportunity as a footballer to be involved in something special with the start of a new league,” he says.

“The Aussies were bringing a lot of players back over, Kevin Muscat and Steve Corica were also going back, and for me it was chance to be part of helping to grow football in New Zealand.

“We first went over on holiday as a family, just to look at New Zealand, and fell in love with the place straightaway.

“Six months later we emigrated, and while I’ve been back to England for work including to do my ‘A’ licence at St George’s Park, my wife and kids have not even returned at all.”

Emblen, one of Bazeley’s closest mates in football, also moved to the Knights – and, for a short period, was managed by former Wolves defender Herbert.  Bazeley played 41 games for the Knights, taking him over the 500 mark for professional appearances, an achievement he is extremely proud of. 

Emblen and Bazeley both then switched to Waitakere United at domestic Championship level where they won the league, and played at the FIFA Club World cup, before going onto to coach the team together for four further years.

The two have linked up on several occasions since in their respective coaching careers which, for Bazeley, began by just helping out with New Zealand Under-17s.Bazeley was assistant coach for the New Zealand Under-17’s for the 2009 FIFA U17 World Cup in Nigeria, and Mexico in 2011 before progressing to becoming Head Coach at the United Arab Emirates U17 World Cup in 2013, winning titles in Oceania each time for qualification.

He was then promoted to the role of Head Coach with New Zealand Under-20s and – while Emblen held the interim position with the senior national team –  assistant coach with them, also continuing after Anthony Hudson took over the main role.

In 2015, the Under 20s World Cup was held in New Zealand – “leading the New Zealand team at a home World Cup was a huge honour,” he recalls.

On this occasion, with Emblen as his assistant, Bazeley masterminded progress from the group to the knockout stages for the first time for the Under-20s at a World Cup, before losing a tight last 16 clash 2-1 to a talented Portugal side for whom recent Wolves signing Goncalo Guedes was among the stars.

He again qualified as champions of Oceania in for the 2017 Under 20s World Cup in South Korea, bumping into Simpson enroute to leading England to a famous triumph. 

He held this dual role – Assistant Coach with the senior team and Head Coach for the Under-20s for four years, competing at the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia, and narrowly missing out on qualifying for the senior World Cup in Russia the following year after losing an intercontinental play-off to Peru.

And that’s the role Bazeley is again carrying out now, recently masterminding Oceania Cup triumph for the Under-20s which secures a place at next year’s World Cup in Indonesia.

In between times however, he has been on his travels.

He spent almost three years in the MLS at Colorado Rapids, where Emblen joined him and still remains.  “Jack Price was a key player in the team at the time and I remember a Wolves fan coming to the game in Denver and us all having a photo with him,” he reveals.  Bazeley then spent nine months back in the A-League working alongside Miller, for manager Robinson. Those Wolves links will indeed, never leave him.

The pandemic made life difficult, particularly travel and seeing family, and so it was towards the end of 2020 that Bazeley headed back home to New Zealand to rejoin the international set-up which he relishes so much.

It has been quite a journey – literally – but one which he has both enjoyed and continues to cherish.

“It’s a different era now where most footballers in the top divisions can earn enough money not to have to work again but for a lot of guys from my time, we didn’t have any qualifications or skills apart from what we knew in football,” he explains.

“So coaching was the natural step for me, and I feel so proud and fortunate to have had the experiences that I have.

“To be involved with a national team, both at senior level and the age group levels, is a great honour and to have been to the Olympics – like we did in getting to the quarter finals in Japan last year – and World Cups is incredible.

“You always miss those times as a player, going out for big games in front of big crowds, playing in front of the fans at Molineux, but coaching has also given me some great experiences.

“It has allowed me to travel, and to stay in football for so long, which makes me feel very lucky.”

As he starts to think about that Under-20 World Cup next year, Bazeley is currently waiting to see how things develop with the senior team, after Hay was asked to re-apply for his position and eventually stepped down a fortnight ago.

New Zealand missed out on next month’s World Cup in Qatar after losing 1-0 to Costa Rica in June’s play-off in Doha, Newcastle’s Chris Wood having a controversial equaliser ruled out by VAR for an alleged foul earlier in the move. VAR – just like former Wolves team-mates – is impossible to avoid.

Bazeley, clearly very close to Hay, admits it is a strange time for change, with the national team performing pretty well over the last few years, and developing into a good competitive international team, especially with potential exciting times ahead.   With an expanded 48-team World Cup around the corner in 2026, the winners of the Oceania region will automatically qualify rather than face a play-off where they have fallen at the last hurdle before the last two tournaments.

He is still thoroughly enjoying life within the international set-up as well as life off the pitch as a Kiwi and the happiness that the Bazeley family has experienced.

Both daughters attended University in New Zealand with eldest Tayla now a qualified physiotherapist who is getting married in January and youngest Abbie qualified in Animal Science and working for the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) in Palmerston North.

“It is such a beautiful country here with a great climate and a great lifestyle,” says Bazeley.

“From where we are living in Auckland, there are probably 10 beaches within a 15-minute drive, or you can go South to go skiing, or West for a completely different coastline – it’s an amazing place.”

Given Bazeley’s career experience he’s probably never more than 15 minutes away from stumbling upon a former Wolves team-mate either – but he would never mind that.

For his 50th, wife Sandy dug into a box of his former playing shirts and had them framed, including from the play-off final with Watford, his England-Under-21 shirt and Wolves one from the 2000/01 campaign when the famous ‘old gold’ made a temporary return.

“That’s a lovely shirt that Wolves one, and it’s great to see it framed,” says Bazeley.

“I felt really proud seeing it again and it brought back a lot of good memories.”

Memories that he has – happily – never really been able to escape from!